Geneva Day 2 Part B

Day 2 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks (Part B)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

I’ve had the chance to go out for a walk along the lakeside — a couple of hardy Swiss were IN SWIMMING — it’s about 35 degrees here….

 So, to continue ….. Yesterday morning, Tuesday, after hearing the Northern Irish, Sri Lankan and Guatemalan women peace activists describe how they managed to get women’s collective foot in the formal peace talks door, we heard from the women sitting next to them in the semi circle (the rest of us were in outer rings of a semi circle). First, two women from Bosnia: they reported that that women from Bosnia – but also from Serbia and Croatia – scarcely had any voice at all in the 1995 US brokered Dayton Peace Accords that ended the devastating four-year war in the former Yugloslavia. Like the current Syrian talks, the Yugoslav all-male negotiations were held far from the society in conflict: at the Dayton US Air Force base in Ohio. As an aside, one of the Bosnian woman said it was indicative that these peace talks were held on a military base!

 Looking back now, the Bosnian women have concluded that one of the most damaging aspects of the US-brokered Dayton Accords was that they included a new CONSTITUTION! That is, it was bad enough that the peace agreement excluded women (and there did exist scores of women’s groups in early 1990s Yugoslavia – one of the most prominent being the Belgrade Women in Black), and that these constitutional arrangements were not subject to an open popular vote, but even worse – with the US government taking the lead – was that by inserting a new constitution in the peace agreement, ethnic differences among the women and men of the now-fragmented Yugoslavia were hardened into legal and institutional barriers. This has made Bosnian women’s efforts over these last 17 years to build a genuine post-war civil society that crosses alleged ethnic identities almost impossible.

 Constitutions matter. Writing a new constitution is integral to any transition from warring, fragmented society to a new civic culture. A constitution can either nurture societal reconciliation and the building of a sustainable peace or, contrarily, a constitution can perpetuate masculinized elitism and social distrust and insecurity. Women civil society activists, thus, need to be inside peace talks; they also need to have influential roles inside any constitution-writing assembly.

Three women had joined the semi circle from the Western Sahara to share their own experiences with us. Two of them gave their presentations to us in Arabic, with their third colleague translating. You really get to see how the English language has become so dominant when you’re sitting amidst women from a dozen countries; the common language that, say, Bosnian and Western Saharan women had to use to share their feminist ideas was English, even though English is each woman’s own 2nd or 3rd language. Then, for any present-day transnational efforts, those people privileged enough to have learned English are those most likely to be invited and to have their thoughts heard. Paying for translators is part of broadening women’s international participation.

These Western Sahara three women stressed how INeffective all the peace talks have been between the Moroccan government and the people of the Western Sahara. Women, they explained, have been totally excluded. Consequently, over the years — they are now in year 14 of making their lives in what were intended to be “temporary” refugee camps! – women who’ve become active in local affairs have tried at least to organize as women inside the camps and to get women into positions of some influence within the camps’ leadership.

Still, worst of all, these three women told us, they today feel as though “no one thinks about us any more; the Western Saharan conflict is not on anyone’s mind.” I sat there thinking, that’s true. I think about Syria, about the Congo, about South Sudan, but I don’t even try to keep track of what has been happening to Western Saharan women.

In a short coffee break Tuesday I chatted with a woman who’d come to listen from one of the big Geneva-based international aid organizations. Her specific job there is to insure that her colleagues’ work is “gender-sensitive.” (I won’t give the organization’s name because, given how few staff people in that building are assigned the job of monitoring gender equity, it would be too easy to track her down). On Tuesday this woman was fuming. Only the day before she had gotten an email message from one of her senior male supervisors telling her that she should take care of the procurement of sanitary pads for delivery to women refugees. But this committed staff woman has nothing to do with procurement – that’s an entirely different department. As explanation for his odd request, this senior man said, “I don’t do women.”

This, of course, is a large international organization which, on paper, assures the global public that it is dedicated to gender mainstreaming…..

The second of the intense morning’s sessions then got underway. Four Syrian women now living in exile spoke about how personally distressing it was to see their country descend into violence. Two women described an effort they’d launched here in Geneva to bring Syrians of all backgrounds and political affiliations together over Syrian food, using recipes from all regions of the country. No talk of politics, religion, or even of the conflict was allowed…the point was just to be together, to remind each other how much they shared as Syrians.

 These Syrian women — as women from any country would – have quite dissimilar understandings of what their society had been like before the outbreak of violence in 2011 – that is, before the Assad regime made military force its response to the non violent pro-democracy public demonstrations calling on the government to reform. Some of these Syrian women, living now outside Syria, for instance, recalled a pre-war society in which they felt secure: “Women could walk at night in Damascus without any fear.” Other women, by contrast, recalled that, while before 2011 there wasn’t overt violence, there was systematic political repression aimed at anyone who dared to be critical of the government. So, even among this handful of women, there existed two quite different understandings of history and of “security.”

Rim Turkmani, Syrian peace activist. Photo by Oxfam,

Rim Turkmani, Syrian peace activist. Photo by Oxfam, retrieved from Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One young Syrian woman, now in exile in France, gave an example of how the less visible violence had been transformed by 2012 into a more visible violence. “I had never been political. I was leading a pretty comfortable life. Then one day, after soldiers had started shooting civilians, I saw Assad on television laughing as the news of the killings was shown. That was it for me. I decided I had to do something.” She joined a small group of women who were trying to provide the simplest forms of support to those families who had lost members to the violence. On Easter, she and a friend decided to distribute chocolate Easter eggs to children in these grieving families -“We wrote messages both from the Koran and from the Gospels on the eggs.” But while on their rounds they were arrested by police for distributing the chocolate eggs and taken to a prison. “They put us in a cell next to a torture room, where we could hear other prisoners pleading to be killed rather than be subjected to more torture.” Eventually, she was released and fled to Paris. Now she runs an on-line FM radio station for Syrians.

 Just at this point – we were all very quiet – there was a commotion outside the glass wall of the room. Cheerful welcomes and much hugging. Syrian women from inside Syria had just managed to arrive! This was no small feat — receiving international funding for the trip, getting through check points, obtaining visas….

 In ‘Day 2, Part C’, I’ll report on what these women shared with us.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.